Stealing our money? Council Housing and union political funds

“The government is going down the wrong road and taking the wrong direction. There is no way we are going to concede the right to allocate their cash to Gordon Brown and the party headquarters when not all our members support everything that the government is doing. Not all our members support the Labour party and they would not stand for their money being used in this way. They would want us to disaffiliate if the government insists on doing this.”

This was the response from GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny to the news that Jack Straw had come out with a proposal (for a White Paper on Party political funding) which would mean that union political fund money would go directly to New Labour HQ rather than to the unions. Clearly, Paul Kenny’s statement was aimed at warning them of the consequences of this proposal and to firghten them into withdrawing it. Whether the New Labour leaders will be stupid enough to press ahead with such a proposal without the support of union leaders remains to be seen. It is difficult to see how the unions, even those who supported Brown’s coronation as Party leader, could accept a situation where they did not have control over their own members’ money (though we wait with baited breath).

The debate, however, raises once again the question of what we do with the money now. Let’s take the example of Council Housing. When the MP’s who have supported the Defend Council Housing campaign, put forward their amendments to the Housing Regeneration Bill, only 30 Labour MP’s voted for them (even 40 Liberals supported them). These included an amendment which would have allowed Councils to start building Council houses once again. In November of last year 76 Labour MP’s had supported an Early Day Motion which included the demand for a new round of Council House building, but when it came to voting against the government less than half of them had the backbone to do so.

How did the union sponsored MP’s vote on this simple but fundamental issue? Six Amicus MP’s out of 112 voted in support of Council Housing, eight GMB MP’s out of 100, 9 out of 61 UNISON MP’s did so. Even in the RMT Parliamentary Group only 10 supported the amendments and four even voted with the government. I couldn’t find a list of T&G MP’s on their web site, though it is doubtful they would have bucked the trend.

Once again this vote starkly poses the question of why the trades unions support people who do not support union policy and the interests of their members, on such a fundamental issue. The debate took place in the context of a Bill which denies Councils the right to build Council Housing, and a government policy, overall, which undermines the continued existence of Council housing, and at a time when the housing crisis is deepening.

The Blair/Brown cabal set out to put an end to Council housing by bullying and blackmailing tenants into voting to transfer their housing to private companies or Housing Associations. However, as the campaign to defend Council housing developed, based on a united front between the trades unions, tenants and their organisations, more and more ballots were lost by the government. Year after year the Labour conference has passed a policy in complete contradiction with that of the government but the government has contemptuously ignored it.

Today it transpires that the government’s funding of existing Council Housing is such that most Councils will have insufficient funds to adequately maintain existing stock. At the same time the government’s so-called ‘equalisation’ of rents (designed to drive up Council rents to the level of Housing Associations) is pushing them ever higher. Council rents in Swindon, for instance are liable to increase by around 50% by 2016.

A recent report indicates that Housing Revenue Accounts will be unsustainable because of projected levels of government funding. The major repairs allowance is predicted to be “40% short of what most people estimate is a minimum investment need over 30 years” (Steve Partridge, Housing Quality Network consultant).

Many local authority areas suffer a “negative subsidy”. Swindon for instance has to pay the government £9 million a year from its rent revenue, around 25% of the total.

This is the context in which union sponsored MPs , in their overwhelming majority refused to support the demand that Councils have the right and the finance to build new Council housing. In so doing they supported the ‘free market’ ideological opposition of the government to Council housing.

Many of these same sponsored MPs, of course, blithely support privatisation of public services, job cuts, and the government’s on-going destruction of the NHS. They do nothing to support union members. It is surely high time that the affiliated unions stopped supporting MPs who are not prepared to challenge government policy which stands in contradiction with the interests of our members.

Yes, we should oppose the arrogant proposal to steal our members’ money, but we should also start asserting in a more serious fashion our right to support only those MP’s who support our members and show the backbone to oppose the government’s neo-liberal agenda. Better a few, but real friends, than pseudo-friends who take our money but support policies which are disastrous for our members and public services.

Whether the main unions should remain affiliated to Labour is another debate. But so long as they are affiliated then they should only support MP’s who are opposed to New Labour’s privatising agenda.

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